Day 26 of our Via Francigena pilgrimage had us splitting in groups of two, and heading for Altopascio. Distance: 12.1 miles. Weather: clouds, rain, 70 degrees.
Many pilgrims choose to pick up the Via Francigena after Lucca. Back when I was young and foolish (two months ago), I thought it was because they were lazy. Now that I’m wiser, I understand that the reason people start there is two-fold: 1) limited time, and 2) better access to supplies and accommodation as you head south.
Dan and I left the AirBnB early. The sun was still rising as we left the famous walled city of Lucca.
A Walk to Altopascio
The route took us alongside farmland with rolls of hay and through quiet neighborhoods. We stopped about 90 minutes into the journey for a cappuccino and cornetto con crema. In terms of walking, it was easy.
However, there was a lot of walking along and across busy roads, and cars zipped by a little too close for my comfort. Discarded trash lined one segment. Some beauty returned during the last few miles, when we passed by a church hostel and vineyard.
Caught in a Storm Near Altopascio
Heavy rain hit hard two miles from Altopascio. We continued walking for 20 minutes, and then lightning lit up the sky. I’m comfortable taking certain risks for myself, but not for my brother. We snuck inside what appeared to be the foyer of an abandoned building. There was a ladder and a decrepit-looking armchair covered with dust.
We pulled our backpacks off, sat on the apartment stairs, and peered through the open door at rain that was gushing down. I checked my phone, and read a cheerful text from Mom that they’d been caught at the hostel we had passed, and that the nice volunteer inside was making them coffee while they waited out the rain. Not long after, they were joined by eight cyclists from New Zealand.
Dan looked around the empty foyer, with the sad dirty armchair.
“Are we going to stay here tonight, Kate?”
“It’s raining super hard, Dan.”
“I’m thinking the rain goes all night. I’m thinking: let’s go to the hotel.”
“What if we get struck by lightning?”
He looked me straight in the eye.
“The lightning has stopped. Kate, we can make it.”
I cocked an ear and peered outside. Since the lightning had indeed stopped, we threw the backpacks back on and bolted the remaining mile to the hotel. It’s the only hotel I’ve been to where there was no receptionist. We used a code to get inside, found an envelope with our key, changed out of the wet clothes, and got settled.
Here’s to You, Brother!
These last two days of one-on-one time with my youngest brother have been a treat.
I’m learning a lot about my brother on this trip. He has always been kind, grateful, honest, funny, and thoughtful. But watching him navigate the physical challenges of this walk leaves me in utter awe – my brother is TOUGH. He adapts to each environment so fast and, no matter the circumstance, he never loses his temper. The closest he came to commenting on a particularly rough segment – his shirt soaked through with sweat – was to say “Those rocks are not easy.”
He had the same mild manner during today’s storm. He was sopping wet, but instead of a snappy, “Get me out of this dump!”, my brother simply suggested we make a run for the hotel.
For all these reasons, Dan is a genuinely fun travel buddy. The only thing he asks for after a walk is a Coke.
When I reflect on his qualities, all I can think of is that skills I’m still trying to acquire seem to come to him naturally. The only thing I can feel is respect.
At 17, Dan is the youngest person anyone has seen on the Via Francigena. Of everyone walking right now, he’s perhaps the only one who did not actively choose to be here. I put very little thought pre-trip into how well he’d adapt to life on the trail. However, every time I turn around, there he is grinning.
Kiss the Feet
One of the good things about separating for a bit is that there are inevitably interesting stories when you reconnect. In my parents’ case, they had spent the previous night in Lucca at a church-sponsored hostel.
It was definitely one of the most unique and memorable experiences they’d had. They and their fellow pilgrims were surprised/alarmed when the hostess announced in Italian that it was their tradition to wash pilgrims’ feet prior to dinner. The foot-washing tradition acknowledged that pilgrims’ feet had sustained damage during their travels, and that every person on the road carries a heavy burden, both physically and emotionally.
Therefore, Mom and Dad each chose their least offensive foot, which was not only carefully bathed, but kissed and blessed.
This was followed by a fantastic communal dinner. Mom apparently broke the ice by pouring what she thought was white wine for a Frenchman…it turned out to be white wine VINEGAR. After her charming faux pas, they roared with laughter and became fast friends. They passed the night in a 6-person room, and everyone parted on the best of terms the following day.
The Plan for Tomorrow
Altopaschio is in a region famous for its bread. Dad, Dan, and I had delicious pizza by the slice, followed by gelato, and a cafe corretto (coffee with a liberal dash of zambucca) as we tried to work out the plan for tomorrow.
We tried to book church-sponsored and commercial lodging in Fucecchio, which was near a midway point between Altopascio and San Miniato, and which was within our walking limits. There was nothing. Thus, we’re taking a train and jumping ahead to San Miniato.
Breakfast: €5 ($5.30)
Lunch: €4.20 ($4.45)
Dinner: €14 ($14.83)
Lodging: €89 ($94.28)